Universal Fighting Game Guide: Tier Lists

If you’ve ever played a fighting game with another person before, I’m sure you’ve discussed the hot-button topic of which character is best. You may have tried to rank these characters from best to worst. For a handful of seriously dedicated individuals, you may have even gone through the painstaking process of trying to mathematically calculate that pecking order.

Tier lists are a hotly-debated topic in any sort of competitive game. For better or worse, their presence in the competitive fighting games can’t be understated. In today’s world of online discussion and information transfer, you’re just a Google search away from finding dozens of different tier lists for any given fighting game written by players with various levels of understanding. Before you cling to a tier list written by a random message board user as fact, let’s take a moment to learn what tier lists are, how they work and what they’re good for.

What is a tier list?

For fighting games, a tier list is used to list all of the characters in that game from best-to-worst.

How do tier lists work?

There are a number of different ways that people use to create a tier list. Regardless of how scientific of an approach one uses to create one, their list will never truly be defined as ‘fact’, as rankings are ultimately defined by personal opinion. I have specifically underlined that last point, as many people get hung up on tier lists to the point where it completely guides their experience through any given fighting game; usually to their own detriment. Whenever you look at a tier list, regardless of how credible that source might be, please review it with a grain of salt, as their is no way to truly quantify anyone’s tier list as fact.

I generally recommend avoiding any tier lists that simply list the best-to-worst characters without any sort of rationale behind their choices. These lists ultimately mean nothing if they don’t explain why every character is ranked where they are.

While there are many ‘mathematical’ ways of creating a tier list, I put the most weight behind tier lists presented in the ‘grid’ format pictured above. Most official fighting game strategy guides that feature tier lists calculate their rankings in this manner. I prefer this manner because it shows that the creators of the list took the time and effort to consider every single match-up in the game in order to create a best-to-worst list.

What do the numbers represent? They represent 1 of 2 things, which isn’t always made clear by the creator. They either mean:

1) The amount of wins a character along the Y-axis would get in a 10-game set against a character along the X-axis, assuming that both players are of equal skill


2) The ease in which the character along the Y-axis would have in defeating the character along the X-axis, assuming both players are of equal skill. In this scenario, the 0-10 scale means that 0 is impossible for a character to win, and 10 means that there’s no way that character can lose

In either case, the numbers are added up horizontally and characters are arranged from highest to lowest based on those total numbers.

When is this information useful?

Tier lists presented in this ‘grid’ format are a decent way of ranking characters from best-to-worst, as considerations were made for every possible match-up in the game. It’s this specific match-up information that I find the most valuable. Tier lists can also be useful when they come with rationales for why a certain character is ranked the way they are, such as Justin Wong’s Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tier list over at Event Hubs. With the right context and rationale, they make for great ‘theory fighter’ discussions and problem solving.

When is this information not useful?

Tier lists in most cases, should not be used to decide what character you should play as. Don’t pick a character just because someone else says they’re good, as there are way more factors at play that determine your success. Primarily, they don’t consider what you as a player bring to the table. Are you better with characters that can do long and complex combos? Better with characters that do short and simple combos? Are you better with grapplers? Are you a great turtle-style player? Tier lists don’t account for this at all.

Ultimately, you should choose characters that you have fun with and fit your play style. For me, I used to use Akuma in Street Fighter IV, who many consider to be the best character in the game. However, I dropped him for Rose, who on paper is much worse, but ended up being the best thing to ever happen to me. Despite the ‘experts’ claiming that she’s a mediocre character at best, she fits my play style way better and I got way more out of her than I ever would have with Akuma.

Also, tier lists are virtually never involved in determining the outcome of a match. Choosing a top-tier character doesn’t guarantee you anything, as a player of more skill, better match-up knowledge, or any number of other variables on their side can beat you. Heck, choosing a top-tier character doesn’t even guarantee you better odds because you may not be able to push that character to their full potential. Even at the highest level, you’ll find no shortage of top players using seemingly terrible characters and dominating because the abilities of that character are only part of the story.

Understanding the time and place for tier lists

Tier lists are a great discussion point, but they are far from a definitive guide to how the game is played or how it should be played. It’s good to see what others are saying, but following any tier list as gospel could very well take you down the wrong path. Instead, look at them as one of many subjective pieces of information available and use it to your benefit where you see applicable. At the end of the day, wins are defined by how you play, not by the position of your character on the tier list.

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